As the world transitions from fossil fuels, some say the change of direction was caused by an oil spill. April 22 is celebrated around the world as Earth Day. Begun in 1970, Earth Day was proposed by Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) when the senator was among those who witnessed a damaging oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Nelson reached out to leaders of the future – students – and across the political aisle to Congress leader Pete McCloskey, as well as to student activist Denis Hayes (who later became president of the Bullitt Foundation). Together, the three proposed a day for a teach-in about the environment. April 22 was chosen because it was between Spring Break and Graduation. Hayes recruited a team of 85 who recommended that April 22 receive a special name: Earth Day.
That first Earth Day was so successful that many trace the birth of the environmental movement to the raised awareness. Another factor: NASA landing people on the moon the year before, in 1969, giving everyone on the planet a sense of Earth’s community.
1970 became a turning point. The Environmental Protection Agency was created, and new legislation passed: Environmental Education Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and the Clear Air Act. 1972: the Clean Water Act. 1973: Endangered Species Act (co-authored by Pete McCloskey, who also worked with Climate One ), and that same year, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
What began in the United States soon went global, as befits Earth Day. In 1990, Earth Day reached 141 countries, raising a movement that led to the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Now, Earth Day is honored by 193 countries. As Earth Day notes, it is the “largest secular observance in the world.” (earthday.org)
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Hayes, Denis. “50 Years: Earth Day” 23 April 2020. https://youtu.be/YVJufelR5Aw
McCloskey, Pete. “Oil and Smokes” Climate One. https://www.climateone.org/video/pete-mccloskey-oil-and-smokes
Nelson, Gaylord. “A Vision For The Earth,” speech on Earth Day 1970. https://youtu.be/y3RCPAtmpv8
Pazzanese, Cristina. “How Earth Day gave birth to environmental movement: Denis Hayes, one of the event’s founders, recalls the first and how its influence spread,” 17 April 2020. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/denis-hayes-one-of-earth-days-founders-50-years-ago-reflects/
Thulin, Lila. “How an Oil Spill Inspired the First Earth Day,” 22 April 2019. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-oil-spill-50-years-ago-inspired-first-earth-day-180972007/
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Un